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You Call this “Liberal?”

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  • Eric Alterman
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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

Last week, the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism [PEJ] released a Survey of Journalists that included some significant findings. Among the most worrisome: The vast majority of journalists believe increased financial pressure is "seriously hurting" the quality of news coverage. Sixty-six percent of national news people and 57 percent of local journalists see it this way. This percentage, moreover, is rising. In 1995, for example, 41 percent of national and 33 percent of local journalists agreed with the statement. In a related finding, the poll found journalists who fear their stories are "increasingly full of factual and sloppy reporting" rose from 30 percent in 1995 to 40 percent in 1999 to 45 today.

Interestingly, management is considerably more sanguine about the current state of journalistic affairs. Most executives at national news organizations (57 percent) feel increased business pressures are "mostly just changing the way news organizations do things" rather than seriously undermining quality. What we have here is a perfect example of how conglomeration interferes with the public’s reception of information. Now it is certainly possible the dismissal (in the past x years) of nearly 60 percent of radio news personnel, for instance, has improved that medium’s ability to keep its audience informed. But it is far more likely management is shilling for the bosses while the journalists on the ground are in much better touch with the quality of the product they are now providing. And that product has been decimated by round-after-round of consolidation, budget-cuts and the integration of radio, television, and print products that do not naturally combine but really ought to compete.

The study has naturally not received much attention, save for its ideological findings. Among these are nearly sixty percent of journalists surveyed think the media has been far too easy on President Bush and just over a third of journalists identify themselves as "liberal." These two figures have driven the conservatives who control the cable TV and radio debates to distraction. This is surprising. True, 34 percent calling themselves "liberal" is a bit more than the national average, but if I’m not mistaken, these same right-wingers have been crowing endlessly that the entire media was controlled by liberals.

If the number is only a third — with 54 percent calling themselves moderates, then just what’s the problem? True, the number of liberals is rising — it was only twenty-two percent nine years ago — and the trend among local journalists is moving the same way — 23 percent say they are liberals, up from 14 percent in 1995 — but this is largely a product of the ability of the far right to move the discourse into its home territory. A decade ago, someone who held the views espoused by George W. Bush would be considered a far right-extremist. Someone who held views to his left — say Sen. John McCain or perhaps George H.W. Bush — was considered a liberal. Today, top Republican leaders want to kick McCain out of the party and Bush himself refers to his father as "weak" and mocks his desire in 1991 to seek a U.N. mandate and genuine coalition before going to war. If more journalists are calling themselves "liberal" and fewer "conservative," well that’s because the word conservative has been hijacked by radical reactionaries and neocons who are closer in temperament to revolutionaries than to historic conservatives like Edmund Burke or Alexander Hamilton.

Writing in U.S. News and World Report, the conservative columnist John Leo mocks the journalists in the survey because while "some 82 percent of the journalists were able to list a news organization that was "especially conservative" (most named Fox News), an amazing 62 percent could not name any news organization that struck them as "especially liberal." Good grief. Even 60 percent of the Homer Simpson family could probably figure out that the New York Times or National Public Radio qualify as liberal. Leave aside the fact that Homer apart, the Simpsons are pretty damned smart (though it’s hard to tell yet about Maggie) Leo picked a bad week to make his point. The Times is in uproar over the role played by its correspondent Judith Miller and others in passing along false information — much of it supplied by the neocons and their dangerous plaything, Ahmad Chalabi — to fool the country into going to war in Iraq. If that’s "liberal," then the word has lost all meaning. Meanwhile, over at NPR, its own ombudsman has endorsed the findings of a study by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting that demonstrates conservative, rather than liberal guests dominate the proceedings. The current issue of The New Yorker has a fine piece by Ken Auletta about the right-wing hijacking of that old conservative bugaboo — PBS. (Trading Bill Moyers for Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot hardly seems like a winner for the liberal team, much less for American journalism.)

Finally, while journalists are a bit more liberal than the rest of this country on social issues, they are generally more conservative on economic issues, as befits their elite status. You can say the same about just about any group of well-educated urban professionals. So what? Is the news liberal? Combine the sensitivities of those in the executive suites who actually determine what is covered — with the constant pressure of the White House and its many right-wing allies in the foundation world, and journalists’ alleged liberalism hardly counts for much when the media rubber hits the road. The fact that Bush was able to push his phony agenda for war through the Times, NPR and the rest — with a considerable assist from the far-right dominated cable talk world — to say nothing of talk radio — implies conservatives are either paranoid or dishonest when they complain about the evils of so-called "liberal media." Either way, it’s time they hung it up.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News, just published in paperback with a new chapter on the Iraq war and a study guide for students.

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